As a solar professional you put pride into your work: from the care and attention that goes into producing the optimal solar design for a customer’s needs, to building a reputation for amazing customer service, to meeting with your customer and taking the time to explain the value your proposed solar installation will offer.
But when the design is finished and your sales conversations are over, your proposal is what the customer will be left with as they sit down to choose between you and your competitors. What does your proposal say about you—and what can you do to make it as strong as possible?
Our Quest to Understand What Makes Proposals Succeed
Here at Aurora, our goal is to empower solar contractors to be more effective. And as your end-to-end software solution, that doesn’t just mean giving you the tools to design optimal solar projects faster and more easily. It also means helping you create stunning proposals so your proposed designs actually become reality.
Over the last year, we’ve been on a journey to discover the key factors that make proposals successful. First, we commissioned branding and marketing expert, Katherine Glass to research the sales experiences of solar customers, to understand what drove their decisions about installing solar, and solar professionals to understand what elements they had observed to be important in proposals and the solar sales process more broadly.
Glass—whose branding insights we shared in the first two parts of this series—is the founder of SpringMark, a marketing and brand strategy firm. Before founding SpringMark, she worked for global creative consultancy Lippincott, where she helped shape the brands of major companies like Delta, Petco, and Starbucks.
In her research, Glass spoke with a selection of homeowners around the country who were at different stages in the solar sales process to understand the factors that influenced their decisions. Some had installed solar, some were in the process of installing solar, and others had considered installing solar but ultimately decided against it, providing a diversity of perspectives and experiences.
We then convened a roundtable session of seasoned solar professionals at our offices in Palo Alto to integrate insights from their sales experiences. Katherine facilitated the session and identified common themes and lessons about what makes proposals successful from the contractor perspective.
Some of the participants of Aurora’s roundtable workshop on solar sales proposals: (from left) Zayith Pinto, Residential Sales Manager at Sunworks Inc.; Ty Simpson, Regional Sales Manager of Bland Solar and Air; Michelle Meier, Director of Solar Services at BSW Roofing & Solar, and President at Solar Roof Services LLC; and Vernon Stratton, CEO of Polar Solar. Katherine Glass (right) facilitated the workshop. (Participant Michael Hale, Solar Energy Consultant at Baker Electric Solar is not pictured.)
This dynamic day yielded rich information on the key elements of compelling proposals, and kicked off six months of work by our team to enhance Aurora’s proposal templates so solar salespeople could have the best proposals in the industry. We hired designers to develop new proposal templates for Aurora based on our research findings, and our internal team worked to build additional functionality to make our proposal tool as user-friendly as possible.
Today, we’re excited to share what we’ve learned with you—along with new proposal functionality and redesigned proposal templates that make applying these lessons a snap!
Five Features of Successful Solar Proposals
1. Highlight What the Customer Cares About
If you want to engage prospective customers and convince them of the value your company will provide, naturally your proposal should focus on the information that’s most important to them. But what is that? While each customer is unique, some key themes emerged from our research:
Emphasize the Finances of Going Solar
Although many homeowners cited environmental concerns as a motivator for considering solar, in the end, for most, financial savings were the biggest deciding factor. As part of this, the availability of rebates/incentives was also a key consideration. Many homeowners found the incentives for solar confusing, so they appreciated when a company could help them make sense of their options.
This perspective was corroborated by the experiences of the solar professionals that participated in our roundtable. “The number one thing to discuss is financing,” reflected Ty Simpson, Regional Sales Manager of Bland Solar. “It’s hard for customers to find financing details on the internet.... They trust you to know that stuff. That’s the biggest gray area.”
The financial impacts of your customer’s solar installation, such as immediate and lifetime savings, as well as financial incentives that apply to them, are some of the most important elements for your proposal to address.
Communicate That You’ll Be There for Your Customers
Other factors that were particularly influential in customer decisions were perceptions of companies’ long-term viability, level of service, and attention to detail. Customers wanted to be confident that the company they chose would be around to help them if they experienced problems in the future, and that they would get a quality installation. As such, customer reviews, testimonials, awards and other markers of quality are important elements of a strong proposal (as we’ll explore in more detail in section 5 below).
A great proposal is one that is visually appealing and different enough that it will be memorable. We took this to heart when we developed Aurora’s proposal templates, commissioning professional designers to create templates that were more visually impactful:
We commissioned designers to create new, memorable proposal templates for our users. (In these examples the Aurora logo is used, but users can customize each template with their own logos, brand colors, and content.)
Beyond the look of your proposal, there are a lot of strategies you can implement to ensure that the information in your proposal sticks in people’s minds. The book Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger—a New York Times bestseller and Best Marketing Book of 2014—explores the factors that make content go viral. While people probably won’t be sharing your proposal on Facebook, applying Berger’s insights on how to make something “remarkable” can increase the likelihood that they remember your proposal and want to talk about it.
In Berger’s words, “Something can be remarkable because it is novel, surprising, extreme, or just plain interesting.” You might think that a product or service needs to be completely new or rare to be remarkable, but remarkability can be found in even the most common product. Snapple added remarkability to their drinks when they came up with the idea of including surprising facts on the inside of their bottle caps.
Think about what potential customers would find surprising, interesting, impressive or otherwise noteworthy about your company, your approach, or your design. Maybe it’s the unusual story of how your company was founded, the inspiring tale of how one of your past projects had a transformative impact on a family or community, or the cutting-edge components you used in the design. Or maybe it’s the realistic model of how their house will look with solar, that you created in Aurora!
Incorporating elements of remarkability can get people talking, and if your proposal gets people talking, there’s a good chance it will be the one they remember.
3. Differentiate Your Company
Another essential feature of a strong sales proposal is that it clearly communicates what sets your company apart from the competition. Is it your exceptional warranties and customer service? Your decades of experience? The components you use in your designs? Whatever defines your company’s value should be clearly articulated in your proposal so the customer doesn’t have to read between the lines.
This was a major theme among the participants in our roundtable. Michael Hale, Solar Energy Consultant at Baker Electric Solar , explained how his company emphasizes their decades of experience and the reputation for quality. “We differentiate with our installations method, the experience of our crew, [and] the longevity of our company.” Twice ranked #1 solar electrical subcontractor in Solar Power World’s Top 500 Solar Contractors list, and #4 on the Rooftop Solar Contractors list, the strategy seems to be paying off for Baker Electric Solar.
For Michelle Meier, whose company Solar Roof Services LLC helps roofers add solar installations to the suite of services they offer, the approach is a bit different. “[In] every proposal, the second page is all about the roofer and their value-add.” Installers that work with Meier emphasize how the customer can be more confident that the installation won’t cause roof damage if they go with a roofing professional. Additionally, “With the roofers, since the homeowner may not have even been thinking about solar, we’re educating on solar 101.”
The technology you use in your designs, or in the process of creating them, can also be a factor that differentiates your company. This is an approach taken by Vernon Stratton, CEO of Polar Solar; “I had to find a product that was a bit different so someone can’t come behind me and offer the same.”
Content that clearly communicates the unique value your company offers should have a central place in your solar sales proposals. (In this example we show the value proposition of a fictional solar company, So Solar Inc.)
For Ty Simpson, Regional Sales Manager of Bland Solar, Aurora’s independently-verified design functionality helps communicate their company’s value. “Our company and the customers we have love Aurora. Even the customers (they don’t know the program) love it. They see the 3D model of their home, they see the shading of their tree. I love that Aurora has given the industry credibility. People used to give a number on a piece of paper, no backing.”
4. Be Customizable
In addition to highlighting the common factors that most solar customers care about, a great proposal is one that is tailored to the individual. As you engage in conversations with the customer, they’re likely to offer insights into their personal priorities.
Roundtable participants recognized some common categories of customers, and reported that identifying where the customer fits makes it easier to tailor proposal content effectively. For instance, some customers are primarily focused on immediate savings, while others care more about maximizing the lifetime ROI of their system. Some customers are particularly focused on the technologies that will be used in their systems, while others are most interested in the financing mechanisms. Some care more about the overall sustainability of their systems, while others may care primarily about getting the best cost per watt. Not only will these factors influence the system design and financing options you may propose, but they should also inform what is emphasized in your proposal.
The information you include in your proposal should address the priorities your customer has expressed throughout your conversations. For instance, if they are particularly interested in the aesthetics of the design, you might want to devote more space to showing how the installation will look, or if they are focused on the components you’ll use you can emphasize why you chose particular makes and models.
Finally, just as the proposal shouldn't be one-size-fits-all for the customer, it should also be customizable enough to able to meet the diverse styles of different sales staff. Some salespeople we spoke with said that they preferred a streamlined (1-2 page) proposal to to keep things simple for the customer, and because they had the familiarity to answer questions that the customer might have. In contrast, others may be more comfortable with a more detailed proposal to guide the discussion with the customer. You trust your sales team’s experience and instincts, so your proposals should give them the flexibility to approach the sale in the ways they have found to be most beneficial. That’s why we’ve made it easy to include as few or as many of the pages in our proposal templates as you desire.
5. Exude the Highest Sense of Quality and Professionalism
Given that a solar installation is a multi-thousand dollar investment that will be with the home for decades, it should be obvious that the quality and reliability of your installations should be a central focus of your proposal (and of course your day-to-day operations).
This is all the more essential given that a common industry challenge identified by our roundtable attendees was the difficulty in overcoming skepticism and distrust from customers who have had bad experiences with solar companies that did not live up to the quality they promised (or who have heard similar stories from friends and family). “The [biggest challenge is the] misconception people have of the solar industry. That we’re just out to get a dime, to get a tax credit. Maybe they had a bad experience with a company that tried to rip them off. They feel that solar companies are car salesmen,” said Zayith Pinto.
Ty Simpson reiterated this perspective, saying that he sees the biggest industry challenge as the “Validity of what’s being offered out there... [There is] A lot of over-promising and under-delivering which gives the industry a bad name.”
This means that content that communicates your company’s commitment to excellence should have a central place in your proposals. This could include testimonials from past clients, snapshots of your strong reviews and ratings on third-party sites like Google and Yelp, awards and other recognition you’ve received, or guarantees you offer.
Using cutting-edge tools like Aurora, that allow you to provide verified numbers is another way give customers confidence in the information you’re presenting. Aurora “allows us to not mislead... and to really stay [true] to the core value of our company: taking care of our customers,” says Zayith Pinto. Aurora also helps Bland Solar address this challenge, according to Ty Simpson. “[Our approach is] full disclosure, full transparency. I’ll show them how we draw trees in Aurora, show them the designs and reports, show NREL’s numbers and compare them to Aurora’s—[we] show numbers across the board.”
Customer testimonials and other indicators of the quality of service your company provides are critical elements of a strong solar sales proposal.
As the solar industry grows increasingly competitive, contractors need to think about how they can better communicate their value to potential customers. In addition to ensuring that your customers have an excellent experience with their installations (the best way to ensure positive word of mouth and customer referrals), incorporating these five principles into your proposals can help make them more successful. This way, when your conversations with a homeowner conclude, you can be confident that the proposal in their hand will stick in their mind.
Have you used any of these approaches in your proposals? Are there strategies you think we missed? Let us know what you think in the comments below or on social media!